Big Ten Speed: Adapt and Survive

Urban Meyer - The Lantern

Urban Meyer probably didn’t make a lot of friends last week when speaking about the Big Ten conference in comparison to the SEC. Speaking candidly, Meyer had no problem giving his diagnosis for why the Big Ten has not fared very well in bowl games and big out-of-conference games in recent years. When asked about the major difference between the Big Ten and SEC Meyer responded:

“Overall team speed. I notice it on special teams. In spring practice I noticed that,” Meyer said. “So I just think overall athleticism right now we’re a little bit behind.”

Ouch. After ruffling the Bret Bielema’s feathers this past spring, Meyer will have certainly removed himself from the annual coaches Christmas card list. In addition to chiding the Big Ten for its lack of speed, Meyer went to say that while the Big Ten conference was once the #1 conference in the country, it has lost that spot to the SEC. So much for conference pride and loyalty huh?

For his part, Brady Hoke avoided the question like a seasoned politician. Asked to comment on Meyer’s characterized of Big Ten speed deficiencies Hoke responded:

“I think it’s a hard question, really, to even answer. Because I think everybody’s different. I think when people make the mistake of lumping the conference in not having speed or whatever it might be. When we’re playing the reigning national champion, they’re a terrific football team and they’ve done terrific things. We’re excited about the opportunity to go into a great venue, different venue, obviously, and go line up and see what happens.”

Thanks coach but you didn’t answer the question. Everyone seems content to tap dance around a topic that has been debated at length by fans and the media, except Meyer. Maybe it’s because Meyer is new to the conference and doesn’t feel the same sense of obligation to tow the company line and not rock the boat. Meyer has been effusive in his praise of the SE120311MSUvsWisc 944_JPG_650x600_q85C since his introductory press conference. Meyer was asked a similar question the day he was hired by Ohio and he responded with a similar answer.

Tap dancing around the issue doesn’t change the reality of the situation. What no coach seems willing to talk about or admit is the fact that Meyer is right. I understand not wanting to step on anyone’s toes but ignoring one of the biggest issues faced by the conference is a bit ridiculous. The Big Ten does lack overall team speed and athleticism in comparison to the SEC. While those two factors aren’t the only reason why the Big Ten has struggled in bowl and big out-of-conference games, it is an important factor.

On the night of the Big Ten championship game, which coincided with the SEC championship game, I wheeled a 2nd television into my room so I`d be able to watch both games at the same time. (It wasn’t the same as being surrounded by 42 TVs at Buffalo Wild Wings but it was close enough). The difference in speed and athleticism, especially in the front 7 on defense, was displayed in stark contrast. That’s not to say that there is no speed and athleticism in the Big Ten, but in comparison to the SEC, the conference lags well behind. In part the discrepancy can be blamed on the glacier like change by Big Ten coaches to the rapid change that took place in college football over the last 5-10 years, including in the Big Ten. SEC teams routinely employ 210-220 lb. LB’s that run like a deer and hit like a wall of brings. They routinely send out safeties that are well under 200 lbs. but make up for it by having tremendous range and ball-skills. These kinds of players have been shunned for years by Big Ten coordinators obsessed with defending the power-run offenses that the Big Ten has made its reputation on for decades.

The reputation as a rough and tumble, line it up and run off tackle every play is great and all, except for the fact that offenses in college football, and the Big Ten iMSU Georgia USA Todaytself, have evolved. Going into last year, only 3 Big Ten teams ran what would be classified as “traditional” Big Ten offenses. In addition, 9 out the 12 Big Ten teams employed a mobile QB last season. That number is set to increase this fall with the ascension of Tre Roberson at Indiana. For years, Big Ten defenses have been geared to stopping a style of offense that was quickly falling out of favor. Some teams did adapt with the changing times. Ironically, it was only after getting shelled by Urban Meyer’s Florida team that Ohio revamped its defensive strategy. Changing the style of player that was recruited and developed and implementing a wide array of defensive schemes and practices. Michigan State also reformatted its defensive style with the arrival of Mark Dantonio, a change the resulted in one of the few major victories the Big Ten has achieved over a major SEC opponent in recent years.

The arrival of both Brady Hoke and Urban Meyer will be good for the Big Ten overall when it comes to upgrading the level athleticism and speed across the board. Meyer who’s knows nothing but SEC football over the last 6 years is well on his way toward building an SEC style defense in Columbus. Brady Hoke, who was smart/lucky enough to hire Greg Mattison, was moving Michigan in that direction even before Meyer’s arrival. Greg Mattison, who coached under Meyer at Florida, expressed his desire to build a “SEC style defense” in Ann Arbor weeks after taking the coordinator position. Imitation is the highest form of flattery or so the story goes. Big Ten coaches and programs will have no choice but to follow suit or risk being left behind. Michigan and Ohio have greater resources and national pull than a majority of Big Ten schools, so the likely hood of the entire conference being able actually build SEC level defenses is debatable. Even if every team isn’t able to produce an LSU or Alabama level defense, simply upgrading in that direction will leave Big Ten teams better off when dealing with programs around the country, including SEC teams.

The Big Ten can’t afford to dance around the issue any longer. In the very near future teams that haven’t raised their level of play will be exposed in ways that up to now have only occurred in bowl and out-of-conference games. Once teams start getting their bell rung on a weekly, in-conference, basis they will be faced with the choice of adaptation or elimination.

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